The May 15 Westword profile of Maya Arulpragasam, who performs as M.I.A., is built upon the foundation provided by the following Q&A, conducted on April 28, the day after the end of the 2008 Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival, where her set turned the heads of fans and fellow musicians alike. In an interview conducted at around the same time, Be Your Own Pet’s Jemina Abegg came away raving about the onstage power of M.I.A.
Below, Arulpragasam talks about the ways in which her approach to music differs from the norm thanks to her background in the visual arts; the constant flow of inspiration that comes her way, which she likens to ADD; the intrusion of business concerns upon her creative process, and the reasons she never minded such interruptions; her relationship with Jimmy Iovine, head of the Interscope imprint; the reasons she wanted to collaborate with producer Timbaland on her latest album, Kala, as well as her thoughts about why the partnership didn’t work out the way she had envisioned during her early days as a musician; and random thoughts about the United States following her move to Brooklyn, including her sense that the country as a whole is moving in a more positive direction.
She knows a little bit about movements, all right…
Westword (Michael Roberts): Before you focused on music, you were involved in the visual arts. Did your experience in those areas influence the way you make music? As a result of that, do you think you put together songs and recordings differently than the average musician?
Maya Arulpragasam: Definitely. I think it had a lot to do with it. When I first started, when I was out of college and tried to make political work and stuff for my art, I think that’s the way it was flowing in my head. And when I was writing songs, that’s what started coming out. It’s not like I intentionally sat down to make a political record. I was just trying to learn to use certain equipment, and I was learning how you write songs. I’d just put down words that were coming out of my head now, and I’d put it aside later for songwriting and lyrics. And in the beginning, I felt like the stuff I was writing was too weird, but I really do think it was because I was frustrated that I was having all these thoughts that I didn’t know how to get out in a film.
WW: Did not really knowing the rules from a certain standpoint make you more open creatively when you came to your music?
MA: Yeah, and also, I used to see songwriting like editing a film or something. You can edit music like you can edit a film. Or if I was painting or making a picture or something, that night I could sit down and write a song. I think it really helps to break things up. Sometimes when you sit down to write songs, you write three or four songs in a row feeling the same sort of vibe. But if you stop in-between that time and change something, you break the pattern – you prevent yourself from unconsciously falling into a format.
WW: Do you still do that? Every once in a while, do you set the music aside and do something else creatively to sort of clear your head?
MA: Yeah. My every 24 hours is like that. It’s not conscious. It’s kind of like having ADD and just being someone who’s done lots of different creative things all the time. Every day is like that. I’m thinking about making a gift and doing something on a website and then writing a song and then making a dress for the stage. I made my dress for the Coachella show, and it felt really good to take the time to stitch something yourself, and then when you get onstage, it feels so much more personal to you. You’re bringing it straight out of your living room. It’s just about getting into your own creative world. The medium is secondary.
WW: For you, does all of your work come from the same artistic place, as opposed to you having to compartmentalize? You don’t have to put yourself in a different place when you write a song, as opposed to making a film or whatever?
MA: No, I don’t. It’s just about staying on top of that creative place.
WW: From a business standpoint, is the music industry very different from the way the visual art world operates?
MA: I never really dealt with the business side of being a painter or a filmmaker. Music was the first time where it was quite an official thing. Being an artist, especially when I was younger, I was just doing work because I was doing work. It was all about meeting people who inspired you or you inspire other people to do stuff and projects. It was just being excited about that. It wasn’t like I went and had a business career out of any of those things. But the music industry, it got really official really soon, because it was something I didn’t know anything about. Within six months, I was signed and “Galang” was out and blah-blah-blah. It went so fast for me, and I was so ignorant to it. It was the first time where I had to go, “Okay, fine. I’ve got to sign a contract and have a manager and a lawyer and stuff like that.”
WW: Was it unpleasant for you to step away from the creative areas that you’re most interested in to deal with contractual issues and so on?
MA: Well, in the beginning, I was just happy to have the opportunity. When I sat down to write songs, it was like, I’m using this whole different part of my brain, and you can make sounds with your mouth and you can say so much. I was just writing beats from one machine, the 505. I was just really excited about discovering something that involved one voice, one tool, one room, one human being. To me, it wasn’t like making a film, where you need thirty people and money and funding and someone to print it up for you and show it somewhere. It just was all such a longwinded process, so I loved the idea that if you had something to say, you could put it into a song that you could write in twenty minutes. So when the contract happened, I was just happy. I was on the dole, and my mom was getting evicted and stuff like that. For me, it was like, “Wow – for the first time, I have no pressure to juggle.” I didn’t have to think about how to support myself and having shitty jobs and being on the dole.
WW: So it was freeing rather than constricting for you…
MA: It was definitely freeing financially, and the creativity part, I fight for it everyday. I fight so that I don’t lose my attachment to that creative place. And that’s the difficulty. You just have to realize that the business side is purely about funding, and it’s not about creative control over what you do. And I think I’ve been really lucky that they’ve left me alone. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have made the album I made.
WW: I think a lot of your fans were fearful when you signed with Interscope that you’d be forced into a position of compromise. Did that concern you? Or did you feel your vision was so strong that you’d be able to stand up to anyone who tried to alter it?
MA: Yes. I think Jimmy [Iovine, head of Interscope] is a really fair guy. I saw him last night, and he’s really fair. You can just go, “Fuck you. This is what I want to do right now. This is what I’m doing, because otherwise, there’s no point in doing it.” And he understands. He’s like, “Cool,” and means it. He’s like, “If you’ve got conviction, you’ve got conviction. I’m not going to fight it.” But he’s interesting. He can’t help it – he can’t help being sort of businessy and having ideas about what you should do. But at the same time, he always supports amazing music. You can’t knock that. And he also has artists like Patti Smith. I think those kinds of artists are very strong and had a real sense of who they were.
WW: Was it his idea for you to collaborate with Timbaland?
MA: Not really. Timbaland was one of my idols. Like when I was growing up. He definitely contributed a lot of music to my life, and he’s one of the main producers that I heard growing up. Everyone, even in England when I wrote my songs, you’d hear, “Oh my God, one day you should work with Timbaland.” And I’d be like, “Wow. That would be amazing.” All my friends would be like, “If you work hard at it, maybe you’ll meet Timbaland one day.” That used to be one of my motivations. And then I lost it, because I was like, my songs are coming out so weird that he’s never going to want to meet. And I think I was just really surprised how I did get to meet him, and I got to meet Missy [Elliott]. Missy became interested in what I was doing when my first album came out. I got an opportunity to work with them, and it was really cool. It’s just amazing that you could make something in your bedroom and they could relate to it and understand. It’s slightly political, but they still got into my music from a music point of view. And that was great, because I’d always wanted to work with Timbaland.
WW: For me as a listener, I was pleased that he didn’t dominate the latest album, and that your vision came through very clearly.
MA: We put the song I did with him at the end. But yeah, that was the argument, that was the problem I had, because eventually when I did meet him, I was two years into being a music artist, and I was already nine songs or ten songs into my album. So when I got to meet him, it was like, “What am I doing here?” It just didn’t make sense. And the idea of making an entire album with just one vision, especially since it was a process that you already started, that you were already in the middle of, it was really hard to break. I wanted to do an album for which I thought the art form was dying, and Timbaland has become – I don’t want to say this, because it’s a really harsh thing to say – but I was scared of being a textbook artist and making an album with ten different hot producers. I wanted one producer to do the whole album, but I didn’t have that luxury.
WW: You now live in the United States, right?
MA: That’s correct.
WW: Has living here given you a new perspective on the United States? Are there some aspects of the politics in this country that you didn’t agree with then and still don’t agree with now, but you feel you understand better?
MA: Yeah. I think my understanding of it has grown, and I’ve been lucky to meet some good people. It’s interesting. It’s very big, it’s very vast. But at the same time, I see how living somewhere like New York – the people there are just so open-minded, open to new ideas, really hungry to new ideas. And when I watch the news and watch the media, the American media, I find it extremely out of touch. Those kinds of opinions haven’t changed for me. I think it was probably the other way around. Ten years ago, when I used to come to the United States as a tourist and spend a month here or something, hanging out and partying and stuff, I was into the wow-ness of America. Like, “Wow! Everything is so big, and the food is amazing, and the lights are so bright, and the club system is so much bigger, and everyone’s in shiny cars.” It had such a wow factor next to England. And England is so much more modest as a country. Coming from Sri Lanka, I was like, “This is amazing.” But now I pay more attention to the structure of it. Like, this is what the media’s like, this is what the music’s like, this is what education is like. Just learning things like that has been really interesting. On the one hand, I feel like, I talk to students and I feel like the education system is really quite interesting, because syllabuses get added to their program, and their really current. Like, kids write an essay or a thesis about me, or on the music scene or whatever’s going on – what happened yesterday on YouTube. And the way that culture, popular culture and education ties in, and how it’s really fast, and how kids are taking the Internet into their own hands and sharing information is really interesting. I think the media, the American media, is really slow. They’re so behind and seem so completely out of touch to me. I don’t watch enough television – I don’t usually watch the news. But when I do watch it, I know why I don’t watch it. Because nothing’s changed.
WW: Living in New York, then, it may be just as hard for you to understand how America elected George W. Bush than it did when you were living in England…
MA: Yeah. But it’s not a surprise to me, because America seems to have a handful of people in control. The handful of people I thought there were aren’t really a handful; it’s a bit more than that, actually. And there was a moment where I felt like America was a really big bully, and I thought, I can see how a superpower works. But that thought now seems to be changing with the people. They don’t really seem like that. When I walk around Bed-Stuy or someplace like that, the mentality of the people has changed. There’s some vibe that’s going on, and I think it might be possible to find it in a lot more remoter places – other states that used to probably be very George Bushy. I think the kids are changing.
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WW: So you’re feeling optimistic about America changing direction?
MA: Yeah, because I think it’s actually possible to trickle change from the bottom up. The people at the top, they still have that old mentality, that idea of grabbing onto something that doesn’t work. But I think the future generation knows that, and there’s already change happening. I just feel like it’s interesting to meet kids with these different points of view. Kids who think gardening is cool, or who want to travel from place to place on bicycles, or have gone into a back-to-basics sort of mentality. The people on top are fighting for America to have something that the people don’t want anymore. So I feel very optimistic. It’s like, somebody could go to a thrift store and buy a pair of shoes because they have style that nobody is selling in mainstream shops, and it wasn’t in Vogue– but then eight months later, you see it in Vogue and some famous fashion designer rips it off and makes a high-end version of it, and you can pay lots of money and buy it in a Beverly Hills store. That process is the exact same process for political change. I think you can go to a thrift store and buy an idea, or buy a change. It’s the same as you putting a little plot at the bottom of your concrete city, and you plant your first tree or grow your first vegetable. It’s the same sort of thing in politics. You can get a small idea that you see working on your street or in your school or wherever and you can talk about it and grow the idea and get that in a song or on the radio, and get it to more people when you say it in a show.
WW: Do you see these kinds of ideas being a part of your next recording?
MA: I don’t know. At the moment, I’m in a weird place. I feel like I just need to let change happen to me before I can report on change. But yeah. It’s interesting. But I’m scared, you know. On the one hand, it feels like, if you have a powerful team, you can make the elections go anyway they want them to go. So it’s really difficult for me to put optimism and change on the top. I might try to put optimism and change on the bottom, with the people I see in front of me.